Speech-Acts, Conventions, and Voice: Challenges to a ... - JAC Online

Speech-Acts, Conventions, and Voice: Challenges to a ... - JAC Online

Speech-Acts, Conventions, and Voice: Challenges to a ... - JAC Online


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570 Journal ofAdvanced Composition<br />

tance <strong>to</strong> this oppression. Literacyinstruction, especially writing, was common<br />

<strong>and</strong> connected <strong>to</strong> central values of freedom <strong>and</strong> education. African<br />

Americans have both a long <strong>and</strong> a powerful his<strong>to</strong>ry of writing for social<br />

action. When "literacy" is separated both from "literature" <strong>and</strong> from<br />

"composition," these progressive examples of uses of literacy outside the<br />

academy are lost <strong>to</strong> us <strong>and</strong> our students. Bell hooks' insistence OR the<br />

connection between activism <strong>and</strong> literacy reconnects the academy with the<br />

political world it inhabits <strong>and</strong> reconnects us with the political work that we<br />

have a responsibility <strong>to</strong> take up.<br />

CaliforniaState University<br />

Chico,California<br />

Works Cited<br />

Cornelius, Janet Duitsman. WhenI CanReadMy TitleClear. Columbia: U of South Carolina<br />

P,1991.<br />

Gere, Anne Ruggles. WritingGroups. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1987.<br />

Graff, Gerald. ProfessingLiterature:An InstitutionalHis<strong>to</strong>ry. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987.<br />

hooks, bell, <strong>and</strong> Cornel West. BreakingBread:InsurgentBlackIntellectualLife. Bos<strong>to</strong>n: South,<br />

1991.<br />

Marable, Manning. Race,Reform,<strong>and</strong> Rebellion. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1991.<br />

<strong>Speech</strong>-<strong>Acts</strong>, <strong>Conventions</strong>, <strong>and</strong> <strong>Voice</strong>:<br />

<strong>Challenges</strong> <strong>to</strong> a Davidsonian Conception<br />

of Writing<br />

THOMAS<br />

G. O'DONNELL<br />

I found the interview with Donald Davidson in the winter lAC <strong>to</strong> be both<br />

enlightening <strong>and</strong> provocative. In the fall edition, Reed Way Dasenbrock's<br />

response <strong>to</strong> the interview did much <strong>to</strong> place Davidson's ideas in a context in<br />

which rhe<strong>to</strong>ric <strong>and</strong> compositionists can see more clearly the issues that are<br />

at stake aswe continue <strong>to</strong> ground our teaching practices inworkable theories.

Reader Response 571<br />

There are two issues Iwant <strong>to</strong> address in this response: the first has <strong>to</strong> do with<br />

Dasenbrock's dismissal of speech-act theory as relevant <strong>to</strong> the teaching of<br />

composition; the second is an observation about conventions which I hope<br />

will lead <strong>to</strong> a more refined <strong>and</strong> instructive Davidsonian approach <strong>to</strong> the<br />

teaching of writing.<br />

Although speech-act theory has proven <strong>to</strong> be useful in various fields,<br />

Dasenbrock calls attention <strong>to</strong> its limitations in the composition classroom:<br />

"Classic speech act theory postulates 'uptake' or a full underst<strong>and</strong>ing of the<br />

'conversational implicature' as essential <strong>to</strong> communication. That seems<br />

much less easy <strong>to</strong> posit as a norm for writing than for conversation" (524). If<br />

we hope <strong>to</strong> import elements of speech-act theory in<strong>to</strong> the composition<br />

classroom, Dasenbrock's observation must be acknowledged. The value of<br />

speech-act theory, however, can be much broader than Dasenbrock is allowing,<br />

<strong>and</strong> its pedagogical significance does not depend on a congruence<br />

between speech-acts <strong>and</strong> writing-acts; indeed, my claims rest on the assumption<br />

that compositionists can do more <strong>to</strong>ward enriching students' underst<strong>and</strong>ings<br />

ofwhat language does <strong>and</strong> how it does it by focusing on issues that<br />

are not textual but still have bearing on considerations that will ultimately<br />

become textual: how we conceive of language broadly-theoretically-will<br />

inevitably impact specific uses of language.<br />

I think many of us involved in the teaching of writing work from the<br />

hidden assumption that students come <strong>to</strong>' us devoid of any theoretical<br />

positions regarding language <strong>and</strong> communication whatsoever. We sometimes<br />

view them as tabula rasas in this area, despite the fact that they have<br />

spent many years using language for various purposes. In myexperience, the<br />

predominant theory that guides students in their workings with language is<br />

some variation of representationalism: words (re)present preexisting ideas<br />

that are simply named or labeled by words as needed. When speaking of<br />

"theory" in this context, I do not mean <strong>to</strong> suggest that students come <strong>to</strong> us<br />

with a full-blown <strong>and</strong> coherent theory of language or meaning. On the<br />

contrary, the fact that they don't is what poses a problem; students (<strong>and</strong><br />

people generally) construct theories expediently,astheyare needed (Davidson<br />

calls these "passing theories"), but the specific "needs" that crop up can also<br />

lend spurious credence <strong>to</strong> various forms of representationalism.<br />

The danger of representationalism lies in its tendency <strong>to</strong> diminish the<br />

importance (<strong>and</strong> obligation) of being self-conscious about language use, <strong>and</strong><br />

this includes both speaking <strong>and</strong> writing. If ideas are simply "out there," <strong>and</strong><br />

language serves only <strong>to</strong> transfer these already-in-place concepts, the value of<br />

studying language, practicing writing, <strong>and</strong> engaging in classroom discussions<br />

about meaning is dubious since these activities deal only with the packaging<br />

of concepts, not with concepts themselves. Discussions focusing on language<br />

<strong>and</strong> words (meaning, diction, style, voice) can be <strong>to</strong>o easily dismissed as<br />

"semantics" (in a pejorative sense)-one step removed from life <strong>and</strong> all that<br />

really matters.

572 JournalofAdvanced Composition<br />

I have come <strong>to</strong> believe that some form of representationalism underwrites<br />

what I can only describe as a kind of magical thinking in which<br />

intention isimbued with an unquestioned status <strong>and</strong> power while the hazards<br />

of actual language use are suppressed. Such positions tend <strong>to</strong> manifest<br />

themselves in classroom discussions which involve interpretation, most<br />

often, in workshop settings. Several semesters ago, my students <strong>and</strong> I were<br />

participating in a workshop, <strong>and</strong> one of the papers we were going over<br />

included the term "bitchy." 1was provoked by this word <strong>and</strong> curious as <strong>to</strong> its<br />

sexist implications; as far as I knew (<strong>and</strong> know), the word is reserved<br />

exclusivelyfor women, <strong>and</strong> I could not think of an adequate synonym used <strong>to</strong><br />

describe male character. We spent some time trying <strong>to</strong> ground the term <strong>and</strong><br />

its possible meanings, <strong>and</strong> after four or fivestudents had offered interpretations,<br />

one of my students, in a state of mild exasperation, concluded: "bitchy<br />

can mean whatever you want it <strong>to</strong> mean."<br />

My student's claim hardly constitutes a theory of meaning, but it has<br />

relevance as a passing theory; that is, the theory was invoked <strong>to</strong> cope with a<br />

particular speech occasion, one in which an acceptable stabilization of<br />

meaning was clearly impossible given the diverse interpretations offered. A<br />

more general rendering of this theory might be something like, "words can<br />

mean whatever you want them <strong>to</strong> mean." The making of meaning conceived<br />

of in terms of reading an audience <strong>and</strong> consulting conventional meanings is<br />

replaced by a trust in wants, wishes, <strong>and</strong> intentions. Mystudent <strong>to</strong>ok refuge<br />

in the reassuring position that intention will somehow burn through the<br />

obfuscations, ambiguities, <strong>and</strong> interpretive difficulties that alwayssurround<br />

language use. This position is grounded in representationalism <strong>to</strong> the extent<br />

that it assumes an inordinate cleavage between word <strong>and</strong> concept. Words<br />

only "st<strong>and</strong> for" ideas: if you want <strong>to</strong> communicate something in using the<br />

word bitchy, <strong>and</strong> you are also aware of the interpretive difficulties posed by<br />

the word, an appealing recourse is <strong>to</strong> take refuge in what you want <strong>to</strong> mean.<br />

<strong>Speech</strong>-act theory provides a useful way <strong>to</strong> approach representationalism<br />

<strong>and</strong> its variants-any theory that regards language as acollection ofwords<br />

that name independently existing concepts. In How To Do Things With<br />

Words,J.L.Austin works through hisnowclassicdistinction between constative<br />

<strong>and</strong> performative utterances: simply put, constative utterances describe a<br />

state of affairs; performative utterances actually do something; they perform<br />

an action. "1saw him mowing his lawn yesterday," is a constative utterance;<br />

"I promise <strong>to</strong> take you <strong>to</strong> the hockey game," is a performative: the utterance<br />

is coincidental with the establishing of a contract.<br />

Austin introduced the distinction between constatives <strong>and</strong> performatives<br />

<strong>to</strong> clarify philosophical muddles endemic <strong>to</strong> assessments of meaning that<br />

dwelled on whether a statement is true of false. Constative utterances are<br />

subject <strong>to</strong> such evaluations; performatives are not. The most fundamental<br />

accomplishment of Austin's distinction is that it forces a broadening of our<br />

underst<strong>and</strong>ing of what language does, what we do when we use words in

Reader Response 573<br />

various situations. In the writing classroom, introducing performative<br />

utterances leads students <strong>to</strong> consider aspects of language that are clearly<br />

incompatible with anystrain 0 frepresentationalism. When someone says, "I<br />

forgive you," the utterance is not a statement of fact but an action. When you<br />

say,"I apologize," it is difficult <strong>to</strong> conceive of analyzing the "meaning" of this<br />

sentence by speculating on a specific concept it represents or transports.<br />

When language overtly performs an action, questions of meaning become<br />

more clearly questions of use.<br />

I do not mean <strong>to</strong> suggest that introducing students <strong>to</strong> performative<br />

utterances will somehow lead them <strong>to</strong> a sophisticated theory of meaning, but<br />

in more optimistic moments, I hope that my students, in having <strong>to</strong> account<br />

for the performative utterances instrumental in their own daily activities, are<br />

inspired <strong>to</strong> see language <strong>and</strong> meaning more in terms of self-conscious<br />

employment <strong>and</strong> less in terms of wanting or wishing a word <strong>to</strong> mean a<br />

preexisting idea. I hope, that is, that the claim "bitchycan mean whatever you<br />

want it <strong>to</strong> mean," will be recast in<strong>to</strong> a more valuable passing theory: "bitchy<br />

can mean various things <strong>to</strong> various people, so assess your audience <strong>and</strong> the<br />

likelihood that your meaning (intention) will be clear <strong>to</strong> them." This may be<br />

a formidable task, but posing the problem in this way involves students in an<br />

inquiry in<strong>to</strong> the meaning making process that does not rely on the assumption<br />

that meaning is entirely a function of wanting <strong>to</strong> mean something or<br />

meaning <strong>to</strong> mean something.<br />

<strong>Voice</strong>, <strong>Conventions</strong>, <strong>and</strong> Meaning<br />

My second point is intended <strong>to</strong> encourage <strong>and</strong> further discussions about<br />

conventions-what they are (or might be), <strong>and</strong> their usefulness in the<br />

teaching of writing. It is unfortunate, I believe, that Austin's legacy is most<br />

visible in references <strong>to</strong> How To Do Things With Words <strong>and</strong> the constative/<br />

performative distinction. Discussions of Austin's work become less productive<br />

the more they assume that Austin was proposing or assuming a theory of<br />

language; as Stanley Cavell remarks, the work "does not for Austin yield a<br />

theory of language; on the contrary, he takes this work <strong>to</strong> show how far we are<br />

from anything he would regard as a serious theory of language" (Themes 35).<br />

Although the constative/performative distinction is valuable (with notable<br />

limitations), Austin's more striking insights occur when he is engaged<br />

in painstakingly working out subtle distinctions of ordinary language, as he<br />

does, for example, in "A Plea For Excuses." Following the essay along as<br />

Austin refines distinctions between <strong>and</strong> among "excuses," "justifications,"<br />

"mistakes," "accidents," "inadvertence," "unintentional," <strong>and</strong> so on, I feel<br />

tha t I'm rediscovering or relearning the waysin which we explain, excuse, <strong>and</strong><br />

justify human action. Cavell characterizes Austin's procedures <strong>and</strong> their<br />

effects in this way:<br />

The positive purpose in Austin's distinctions resembles the art critic's purpose in<br />

comparing <strong>and</strong> distinguishing works of art, namely, that in the crosslight the capacities

574 Journal of Advanced Composition<br />

<strong>and</strong> salience of an individual object in question are brought <strong>to</strong> attention <strong>and</strong> focus....<br />

In Austin's h<strong>and</strong>s, I am suggesting, other words, compared <strong>and</strong> distinguished, tell what<br />

a given word is about. To know why they do, <strong>to</strong> trace how these procedures function,<br />

would be <strong>to</strong> see something of what it is he wishes words <strong>to</strong> teach, <strong>and</strong> hints at an<br />

explanation for our feeling ... that what we learn will not be new empirical facts about<br />

the world, <strong>and</strong> yet illuminating facts about the world. (Must We 103-04)<br />

The power of Austin's work lies in what Cavell calls the discovery of<br />

"illuminating facts about the world," but I am particularly interested in how<br />

such work, such procedures <strong>and</strong> their results, may challenge what we mean<br />

when we speak of conventions, especially when we speak of them in terms of<br />

their significance <strong>and</strong> application in the teaching of writing. At one point in<br />

his response <strong>to</strong> Davidson's interview, Dasenbrock posits a particular relationship<br />

between voice <strong>and</strong> conventions: "We attain our own voice, a<br />

Davidsonian approach <strong>to</strong> usage suggests, not by slavishly following nor by<br />

desperately avoiding received conventions, but by playing off against them.<br />

The more radical our departure from received conventions, the more we risk<br />

unintelligibility; but the more we respect <strong>and</strong> follow received usage, the more<br />

we risk boredom" (525). As Dasenbrock casts the problem, the chief task<br />

involved in cultivating a personalized voice is navigating between unintelligibility<br />

<strong>and</strong> boredom, but Austin's work suggests <strong>to</strong> me alternatives <strong>to</strong> this<br />

characterization. His most challenging <strong>and</strong> illuminating work involves the<br />

exposureof conventions, but I would hardly describe the results of his<br />

enterprise as boring. I am not suggesting that Austin's philosophical voice<br />

fails <strong>to</strong> challenge conventions; indeed, one of his trademarks as a philosopher<br />

is his routine employment of striking <strong>and</strong> original examples, a skill that<br />

distinguishes his philosophizing. Those of us who find Austin's work<br />

uniquely clarifying, however, would not likely attribute this power <strong>to</strong> the<br />

thwarting of the conventions of philosophical discourse but <strong>to</strong> specific<br />

Austinian demonstrations which remind us of the forgotten power of conventions<br />

<strong>to</strong> demarcate conceptual boundaries with as<strong>to</strong>unding precision. It<br />

is usually when hidden capacities of conventional usage are brought <strong>to</strong> light<br />

that questions surrounding conventions become both more urgent <strong>and</strong> more<br />

difficult. What are conventions? How can we characterize our investment<br />

in them? <strong>Conventions</strong> are often characterized as arbitrary, mere collective<br />

choices, but Cavell takes issue with Stanley Fish on this matter <strong>and</strong> exposes<br />

the limitations of explaining conventions in terms of agreements:<br />

But Fish's words here make this agreement seem much more, let me say, sheerly<br />

conventional than would seem plausible ifone were considering other regions ofAustin's<br />

work, for example, the region of excuses,where the differences, for one small instance,<br />

between doing something mistakenly, accidentally, heedlessly, carelessly, inadvertently,<br />

au<strong>to</strong>matically, thoughtlessly, inconsiderately, <strong>and</strong> so on are worked out with unanticipated<br />

clarity <strong>and</strong> completeness but where the more convinced you are by the results, the<br />

less you will feel like attributing them <strong>to</strong> agreements that are expressible as decisions.<br />

How could we have agreed <strong>to</strong> consequences of our words that we are forever in the<br />

process of unearthing, consequences that with each tum seem further <strong>to</strong> unearth the<br />

world? (I don't say there is no way). (Themes 40)

Reader Response 575<br />

The problem may be that Austin is revealing something, but we don't quite<br />

know how <strong>to</strong> characterize these revelations; in displaying conventions in the<br />

ways he does, are we <strong>to</strong> view them as agreements, shared meanings, or some<br />

kind of elusive solidarity, something akin <strong>to</strong> what Wittgenstein calls "forms<br />

of life?" Whatever the answer may be, it is clear that work such as Austin's<br />

urges us <strong>to</strong> clarify what we can meaningfully convey by "conventions," since<br />

they must be something more (or something more difficult <strong>to</strong> explain) than<br />

mere agreements.<br />

Part of my difficulty with Dasenbrock's notion of "voice" as something<br />

<strong>to</strong> be struck by negotiating between unintelligibility <strong>and</strong> boredom may have<br />

<strong>to</strong> do with the incongruity which characterizes the options: is one's voice<br />

likely <strong>to</strong> be less boring the more it approaches unintelligibility? Is intelligibility<br />

the aspect of writing (or language use in general) that is most at risk in<br />

efforts <strong>to</strong> circumvent boredom? To what extent does risking boredom <strong>and</strong><br />

following received usage assure intelligibility?<br />

The question of intelligibility generates questions of meaning, <strong>and</strong><br />

conventions are certainly an issue here, especially if we characterize them as<br />

established ways of making meaning; it seems more difficult, or a different<br />

kind of task al<strong>to</strong>gether, <strong>to</strong> specify what is at stake, what is missing, what is<br />

present, when a voice "bores." Although I find myself willing <strong>to</strong> evaluate<br />

voice in terms of its reliance on or deviation from accepted conventions, I<br />

think it unlikely that avoicewhich does nothing <strong>to</strong> challenge conventions will<br />

necessarily be boring. Whether or not a voice is "boring" or "engaging" (I do<br />

not think there is an exact antithesis) strikes me as a different question<br />

al<strong>to</strong>gether ,one that willinvoIveme in the act 0 fcriticism, the results of which<br />

mayor may not include an indictment (or praise) of conventions.<br />

Seeing the cultivation of voice in terms of pushing the envelope of<br />

conventional usage seems <strong>to</strong> me <strong>to</strong> be a misrepresentation of the issue <strong>and</strong><br />

one that fails <strong>to</strong> account for the surprises of learning that often accompany<br />

encounters with the conventional, <strong>and</strong> these surprises are not limited <strong>to</strong><br />

those with philosophical training. Indeed, my suggestions here grow out of<br />

a larger conviction that conventions themselves can serve as the very source<br />

of a philosophically-oriented rhe<strong>to</strong>ric. A semester ago, a student of mine<br />

wrote an essay in which he analyzed the various ways <strong>and</strong> contexts in which<br />

he employs the verb <strong>to</strong> know. Among his discoveries was the realization that<br />

the grammar of knowing (grammar in the Wittgensteinian sense of the word)<br />

is multifaceted. The most striking example my student used was a scene in<br />

which his mother <strong>to</strong>ld him, "you've got <strong>to</strong> clean up your room." His response<br />

was, "I know," but he went on <strong>to</strong> explain in his essay that in claiming <strong>to</strong><br />

"know," he did not communicate <strong>to</strong> his mother an acknowledgment of the<br />

fact that his room was untidy, nor did he intend <strong>to</strong>; "I know," in the context<br />

in which he used it, meant something more akin <strong>to</strong> "leave me alone," or "I'll<br />

take care of it later." This is a case in which a conventional expression-a<br />

claim of knowledge-is used for a specific, context-bound rhe<strong>to</strong>rical effect. I

576 Journal ofAdvanced Composition<br />

see my student's efforts at working through these different uses of "I<br />

know"-his inclination <strong>to</strong> talk about the use of a word in terms of intention,<br />

grammar, <strong>and</strong> consequence-as the beginnings of a way of thinking about<br />

language that is philosophical, <strong>and</strong> I believe such discoveries are just as<br />

valuable <strong>to</strong> students as learning about the ways in which conventions constrain<br />

voice.<br />

In mapping out the applications of Davidson's ideas for teachers of<br />

writing, Dasenbrock writes, "In emphasizing the mutability of our prior<br />

underst<strong>and</strong>ing, Davidson establishes creativity <strong>and</strong> innovation at the very<br />

heart of communication" (525). I close with two questions: first, "prior<br />

underst<strong>and</strong>ing" of what, exactly? Second, do "creativity <strong>and</strong> innovation"<br />

necessarily m<strong>and</strong>ate a challenge <strong>to</strong> conventions? My reading of Austin's<br />

work <strong>and</strong> Cavell's characterization of its results, <strong>and</strong> myconviction that the<br />

study of conventions (their limits <strong>and</strong> peculiar powers) is valuable <strong>and</strong><br />

inherently philosophical, suggest that creativity <strong>and</strong> innovation can just as<br />

often be a case of calling <strong>to</strong> mind (being reminded of) the depth <strong>to</strong> which <strong>and</strong><br />

the particular ways in which conventions determine what we say <strong>and</strong> mean<br />

<strong>and</strong> what we can say <strong>and</strong> mean.<br />

FloridaState University<br />

Tallahassee,Florida<br />

Works Cited<br />

Cavell, Stanley. Must WeMean Mat WeSay. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1969. 97-114.<br />

-. ThemesOut of School:Effects<strong>and</strong> Causes. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984. 27-59.<br />

Dasenbrock, Reed Way. "A Response <strong>to</strong> 'Language Philosophy, Writing <strong>and</strong> Reading: A<br />

Conversation with Donald Davidson." JournalofAdvanced Composition 13 (1993): 523­<br />

28.<br />

A Reply <strong>to</strong> Thomas G. O'Donnell<br />


The situation of responding <strong>to</strong> a response <strong>to</strong> one's own response <strong>to</strong> an<br />

interview is sufficiently dialogic that it seems we ought <strong>to</strong> be discussing<br />

Bakhtin or Gadamer rather than Davidson, Austin <strong>and</strong> Cavell,not that these<br />

are utterly incompatible thinkers. But I appreciate the care <strong>and</strong> openness <strong>to</strong><br />

dialogue apparent in Thomas O'Donnell's response, <strong>and</strong> I welcome the<br />

opportunity <strong>to</strong> clarify <strong>and</strong> extend my thoughts on the two central points he<br />


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